Pandora's Black Box: Michael Sanchez on Algorithms of Taste
IN 1969, Dan Graham completed Likesy a "Computer-Astrological Dating-Placement Service," which anticipated online dating services by using a computer algorithm to match potential partners on the basis of astrological signs, physical appearance, and relationship priorities. The program even incorporated user feedback, via newspaper advertisement, on the success or failure of matches already made. (1) In 1972, Joshua Young, a painter living in Los Angeles, circulated a series of questionnaires to area artists, asking with which of their colleagues they would like to exhibit. (2) An algorithm used their responses to generate a series of group shows--collectively called the Market Street Program--thereby physicalizing these virtual social networks into what a contemporary reviewer was already calling "clusters."
Set to launch in January 2012--but at the time of writing (early February) still in development and not accessible to the public--the website Art.sy may, as a search engine and filter for works of art, signal an end point uniting these two trajectories. Art.sy does not grant beta access to the site to bers of the press, but based on the company's own PR, other articles and interviews with Art.sy staff, and a brief viewing of the current state of the site at the company's open office in New York, a general understanding of the core technologies emerges. After an Art.sy user searches for an artist, work, or artistic attribute that he or she "likes," to use Graham's prophetic term, a proprietary algorithm generates clusters of suggested images, ranging from canonical museum pieces to contemporary works on sale at affiliated galleries.
Making these images network in the way that the artists networked in the Market Street Program, Art.sy merges murky formal affinities and social linkages into a single code. While the network surrounded an unopened black box of "taste" in the Market Street Program, now the network generates itself fully within this black box, as a social algorithm that is also an algorithmic formalism. Put another way: The network of subjects and artworks in the Market Street Program accreted around a black box of taste, which operated between the clusters of real-world exhibitions and artworks it brought together. Now, the black box itself has absorbed both subject and work, so that the network enforces the appearance of a morphological similarity between itself and the subjects/objects within it. Taste is replaced by a hyperlinked connectivity that seems to derive from the images themselves, as in sets of photos on Facebook that are immanently networked via sorting features both metonymic (the album) and metaphoric (the tag, the link, the like).
Founded by Carter Cleveland, the twenty-five-year-old son of art collector David Cleveland, Art.sy is financially and strategically buttressed bv a net-work of upper-echelon investors and advisers from the technology, media, and art worlds: The celebrity-roster includes Dasha Zhukova, Larry Gagosian, Wendi Murdoch, Peter Thiel (of PayPal), Jack Dorsey (of Twitter), and Joe Kennedy (of Pandora). These backers have placed at Art.sy's disposal resources ranging from advisory roles to token contributions to considerable investments. In line with the site's aspirations as both a pedagogical resource and a commercial venture, the roles of adviser (such as that played by the prominent curator John Elderfield) and investor are blurred. After obtaining an initial seed grant of $160,000, Art.sy raised $1.25 million in a second round late in 2010 and $6 million in a third round late last year. With each influx of funding, the algorithm used by the site has grown more effective. More money, one imagines, buys more "data points": the formal, historical, and contextual qualities the site uses to link one work to another. As of a November 2011 article in Wired, the site included more than 550 criteria, against which each work takes a value from 0 to 100. …